Puya: Unearthly Delights in the Garden
Our home came with a mature garden of varied things, but it was quite a surprise to see a puya for the first time. It looked so unworldly! My husband and I both stared at a 3' spike of metallic teal blooms with bright orange anthers and wondered what it could possibly be!
Well before the internet, my research involved the tedious page turning of my Sunset Western Garden Book. Finally, there it was: Puya alpestris, an exotic plant native to the Andean slopes of South America. What a rare treat! We still only see it produce a flower about once every 6 years, and it is an exciting event which takes place over several weeks.
The Bromeliad Family:
The Bromeliacea family has over 3,000 varieties. Some thrive in the world's tropical rainforests where they attach to the bark of trees with their aerial roots. These epiphytes, easily rooted, have been adapted to grow as house plants, including the colorful guzmanias and tillandsias. Distantly related to the pineapple, many are naturally terrestrial and prefer to grow in well-drained soil like the dyckias and puyas which are treated as cactus and succulents.
The puya species has close to 200 varieties. Native to the Andes regions of Chile, these exotic plants produce strong fibers that were used by indigenous people for ropes and fishing nets. In fact, the name "puya" comes from the Mapuche Indian word for "point." which is the characteristic shape of the inflorescence.
The Puyas of South America
The largest bromeliad in the world is native to the lower slopes of the Peruvian Andes and Bolivia. Puya ramondii is known as "the Queen of the Andes" reaching 30 feet in height. This unique towering torch of white flowers, rarely seen outside its natural environs, is slow-growing and takes on average 100 years to produce a flower. This plant is also monocarpic, meaning the whole plant dies after the bloom is spent, leaving only its seeds for posterity.
Puya chilensis , a more practical horticulture specimen for display, grows to 10 feet and has a spectacular spike of yellow to lime green flowers. The huge rosettes of barbed strappy leaves are dangerous to animals and humans alike. This species is often referred to as the "sheep-eating plant" because of its reputation for ensnaring wandering livestock and other unfortunate victims within its spiny clumps. The plant derives mineral rich nutrients from the decomposing flesh and bones as a means of survival.
Commonly referred to as "turquoise tower." Puya berteroniana produces a 6' flower spike from a 3'-4' rosette of spiked strappy leaves. The inflorescence can take over several weeks to complete its spectacular bloom. The true turquoise flowers have bright orange anthers which stand out in striking contrast. The foliage appears gray-green due to its whitish coating, and the undersides look silver. As with all of the showy puyas, they are monocarpic and will not flower again. It can take a few years for its pups to produce their own spikes. The heart of the torch-like flower can purportedly be cut up and eaten with lemon and cilantro.
Among the candle-type puyas, the best for backyard landscapes in suitable climates, are Puya beteroniana at 6 feet with turquoise flowers and Puya alpestris "sapphire tower" at 4 feet with a deeper teal bloom. Bees and moths enjoy the pollen-rich anthers, and the hummingbirds rest on the puya's natural perches while collecting nectar from the velvety flowers. Both are considered succulents and are well suited to xeriscape garden designs. Unlike succulents which store water in their leaves, puyas go dormant during weather extremes. Each prefers a well-drained soil and can tolerate hot, dry climates with winter dips to 18 degrees F.
Propagation and Care:
These plants can be grown from seeds as well as the off-shoots or "pups" which form at the base. It takes 6-8 years before flower formation. Although drought-tolerant, these plants can handle ample water during the growing season if the soil drains well. They can be propagated in containers or planted directly in the ground; however, I've found greater success in the garden bed. If using a pot, a cactus soil w/ a blend of sand or coir fiber is best. Resistant to most pests and diseases, it is possible to see some scale or mealy bug now and then. The best approach is to respond early by scraping off the scale from the undersides of leaves and treating the mealy bug w/ a Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol or an application of neem oil. An annual feeding of a slow release organic fertilizer like calcium-rich bone meal or a pellet-form Osmocote is the most you'll need.
In landscape designs these blend so well with agave, aloe, kalanchoe, and kniphofia with their beautiful orange spiky blooms. The lovely blue-green fingers of Senecio mandraliscae and the bright red-orange pencil-like foliage of Euphorbia tirucalli are nice compliments too. The purplish-black rosettes of Aeonium and low spreading sedum can add textural interest and contrast. Consider companions with similar growing requirements, and remember the barbed leaves are not suitable for areas of traffic, pets, or children.
In my own garden where this plant existed when we moved in over 25 years ago, it co-exists with bearded irises and succulents. I'd love to divide it but don't dare in its tight space. Moving this plant is serious business because of its razored edge barbs. I'd suggest heavy cordura nylon gaiters and gauntlet gardening gloves. Snake Armour hunting overalls would be good too if working with a large plant!
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© 2014 Catherine Tally